The Aesthetes vs. the Omnivores

“The sense of taste is feared because it is so vivid and so puissant. There is little danger that the average man will be so passionately enamoured of picture, statue or sonata that he will forget to the detriment of his health to eat and sleep.”

—H. Warner Allen, The Romance of Wine (1931)

I suggested last month that there were some instructive correlations between wine and classical music that folks who care about music should ponder, and I have been spending many sleepless hours (pace Warner Allen) pondering just that. But at the time of my original essay, I assumed that the wine business was having fewer problems than we are. However, an article I read last week in the U.S. Airways magazine offers a less optimistic prognosis (“How Wineries Will Fail in the 21st Century”). According to its author, Alder Yarrow of vinography.com, the wine industry is out of touch with the current market, particularly in the United States:

For the last 18 months, if your wine is over $50, well then you can pretty much forget it unless it has 97 points (or something like that). […] Wineries need to start connecting with people and building an intimacy that really is not there now.

Yarrow’s assessment of the current scene and his suggestions for a more sustainable future model feel perversely like so many conversations I’ve had with people about the music industry over the past five years. The classical music business and the wine business in the United States have both traditionally marketed themselves on the elite and ultimately somewhat pretentious conceit of masterpieces whose unchallengeable provenance would be determined by aesthetes. But in a world where everything is relative, there are no masterpieces. There is, however, the bargain basement. And in tough economic times, even that basement has trouble attracting customers.

Friends, innocent bystanders, and readers of these pages are all too familiar with my post-judgmental manifestoes over the years. At the heart of my polemics is an unquenchable curiosity which only an omnivorous approach, rather than an exclusionary aesthetic one, can satisfy. Hence my desires to understand all music, visit all countries, drink wine made from every grape varietal, etc., rather than engage in a futile quest for “the best.” So, I had to read an article I chanced upon while leafing through the latest issue of Food and Wine magazine (April 2010) whose title piqued my interest for obvious non-oenophilic reasons—”Is Greatness Overrated?” Sure enough, about a page into the article, the author (Lettie Teague) described a friend who assiduously avoided drinking anything emanating from a high-end bottle, assuming such fare was only for connoisseurs who had devoted a lifetime to being able to comprehend the nuances:

Don’t serve me a great wine (italics mine); I won’t appreciate it. […] I won’t know how to describe it properly.

Sound familiar? Remember the people who could and would be fans of classical music, and by extension and more likely the new music being presented in classical music venues, if only we could make the experience of entering a concert hall somehow less intimidating?

I have usually countered such arguments by saying that for many people the experience of going into a club can be even more intimidating—after all, it is way harder to figure out how to be cool than how to be proper. Everyone has a basic understanding of what proper means, but cool is ever changing and inconsistent from venue to venue. Of course, there’s no hard and fast requirement to be cool or proper in any space. I always find it amusing to see people decked out to the nines when attending operas or symphony orchestra concerts, as if the clothes affected the way you hear music. Obviously, in those instances it is less about those folks having an experience than their being an experience for someone else, e.g. they are there to be seen. And the same is true for the cool uniform du jour at clubs. But frequent attendees to any venue eventually realize that if the folks there give you funny looks because your shirt is the wrong color or your shoes are not a certain brand, that’s their problem. I still need to figure out an equivalently glib retort to the wine snobs.

3 thoughts on “The Aesthetes vs. the Omnivores

  1. fkayali

    I find the contemporary music versus “great wine” parallel interesting. I imagine, however, that the person who is refusing to drink the great wine is mostly afraid of wasting what is touted as a very special experience on an inadequately prepared palate. Unlike music, a particular cup of wine can only be drunk once!

    Moreover, great wine tends to be very expensive, which, I believe, is also a big part of the equation. Some people, even if money is ultimately no object, will simply not pay $100 for a bottle of wine or for a ticket to the symphony, not because they wouldn’t enjoy the experience, but because they don’t think that any bottle of wine or concert, however wonderful, could justify such a price tag.

    Nevertheless, should this same experience be granted for free (and there’s no way to sell the bottle or the tickets on e-Bay to someone else), I think we may start to see different outcomes. Namely, I would imagine that anyone who normally drinks wine would probably be very happy to drink the expensive bottle – particularly if it is made clear that they are not expected to deliver a clever analytical response describing their experience! With contemporary classical music, however, we’re dealing with something that many people genuinely fear: they worry it’s going to be boring, “ugly,” or both!

    So perhaps a better parallel, still in the culinary domain, would be asking someone to sample a hot pepper which an expert has deemed superior, or a slice of strong blue cheese, or something that people tend to be ambivalent about in the first place – frogs, snails, blood sausage, or poisonous blowfish sushi, etc. These may be truly excellent, but there’s something about them which makes people think twice. People needn’t even have sampled something like it before, but a red flag is raised all the same.

    True, concert seats are, similarly to wine, limited in availability and often high in cost. But, as discussed in previous postings, the same music can be also accessed through recordings (library CDs, free online recordings, cheap internet downloads, Contemporary Classical Radio, and the such), which are inexpensive and certainly don’t ruin the experience for anyone else!

    There’s something different at play with contemporary classical music. For many people, the very label, the very category is off-putting. This ties in with the omnivore-versus-aesthete division. In their own way, some listeners have written off the entire category (which, I would argue, constitutes the move of a categorical aesthete). An omnivore, by contrast, would – I imagine – give each and every piece a chance.

    It seems easier and more effective, rather than trying to force-feed people something we insist on calling “contemporary classical music” to deliver instead the very same product under other, friendlier labels (and also, perhaps, in other venues). I don’t believe that wine needs to deal with this sort of image problem!

    Reply
  2. BAVanWinkle

    Maybe the problem is we’re trying to sell wine to a society of beer drinkers. This is by no means considered a slander; the beer market is every bit as varied and rich as the wine market, they just have a lower bar for entry and are more accessible to the average person. It is an interesting market, because there are constantly new competitors getting in to it, and while it is extremely varied, it is also very consistent.

    First off, beer having a lower price barrier for entry to gets more people interested in my experience. While many people get in to the wine for the prestige that comes along with the knowledge of a high end product favored by many elite, most critical beer drinkers I’ve met get in to for the taste and the experience. And for the same price as one “bargain” wine ($25 according to the previous article) you could try 3-5 great beers. If you’re barrier to a new experience is too high, people will be driven away from your cause. While I’ve speant 20 bucks on a bottle of beer before, I can spend half that much for a 6 pack and still have an enjoyable experience.

    There is also the myth that prestige is the same as quality. Studies of perception have shown that even seasoned wine reviewers will rate a low-end bottle of wine in a high priced bottle better than a high-end bottle in a cheap bottle (I can hunt for the study if people are interested). Basically, if we want to take a wine approach we’re buying in to a system that artificially inflates itself, which can only last so long and only has room for a few winners at the top.

    The other big thing that breweries seem to be doing better than wineries is branding themselves and selling what makes them unique. While wines seem to be stuck in the mold of trying to do a certain style “better” than the rest of the market, brewers are in the field of making something different than the rest of the market. They aren’t trying to release the “best” IPA they are trying to release their best IPA. Unique, within an established style, is a much easier sell than superiority. And the most successful companies also carefully brand what makes them unique carefully. I know what I’m getting in to when I order something by Rogue brewery, or Flying Dog, or Dogfish Head. They also tend to be very active in going out to places that carry their product and advocating themselves.

    So I guess what it comes down to is whether we decide to define ourselves as doing something for the privileged, or something that anyone can get in to with a little help. I choose to see the problem not as one of people not being interested in wine, but where the wineries haven’t done their job in reaching out to people in a way they can appreciate.

    Anyways, may come back to edit this for clarity later after I’ve had a chance to think it over some more… not sure if I’m way off target or if I am whether or not I’m being clear.

    Reply
  3. Frank J. Oteri

    BAVanWinkle writes: Maybe the problem is we’re trying to sell wine to a society of beer drinkers.

    You raise an interesting point which would be great to bring back to music. I am a big fan of both beer AND wine (as well as coffee AND tea for that matter), which once upon a time was a rather uncommon phenomenon but now seems much more common. In a way, it might be analogous to listeners today who freely sample music from a variety of genres as opposed to those who in the past would never cross such lines. Indeed such listeners have an aesthetically “omnivorous” inclination. But as long as “classical music” keeps itself apart from everything else, it’s harder to find. At the same time, classical music itself (like information) has no volition. And often it is not even today’s practitioners or the promoters who are keeping it apart (they want more people to listen), but an ingrained perception that perpetuates such things as separate music listings in magazines, etc. Of course the fear is that without a separate listing section for classical music no classical music event would ever get listed. And this sadly is a legitimate fear since it is on the radar of so few editors who are not immersed in the scene.

    Which brings it back to beer and wine. If you order a glass of wine in a bar with a great beer list, it’s usually awful. That said, in that same April 2010 issue of Food and Wine I cited in my essay above it was very nice to see on their list of favorite sommeliers someone who is a beer expert.

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